The World Cup may be over, but there are soccer balls still bouncing in space. Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered soccer-ball-shaped molecules, known as "buckyballs."


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Jan Cami: We discovered buckyballs in space. Fullerenes, or Buckminister Fullerenes as they're called in full, are, in fact, an entire class of molecules. Buckyballs are these microscopic particles made of carbon that are arranged in a very specific pattern of pentagons and hexagons, which gives them the shape of a soccer ball.

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Cami: Buckyballs are like soccer balls in the precise way that the carbon atoms make up a pattern of pentagons and hexagons. In that sense, the chemical structure of these buckyballs is exactly the same as a soccer ball. We can detect buckyballs in space through their vibration motions. These buckyballs, they oscillate and vibrate in very different ways, and each way they vibrate corresponds to a very specific color of infrared light that they emit or absorb. So it's the first detection of an entire new class of molecules that we know on Earth, but that we didn't know for sure whether or not they existed in space. Buckyballs are now the largest known molecules in space, and we have discovered them using the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Astronomers are excited about the discovery of buckyballs in space, first of all, because it is something that we have been looking for about 25 years now. The main reason being that these buckyballs are amongst the most stable and the most durable molecules that we know on Earth. So they are ideal candidates to survive the harsh conditions in the interstellar medium of deep space.

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